PROVIDENCE — Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and newly elected Senate Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson outlined their priorities for the 2023 legislative session, detailing plans for everything from changing the education funding formula to betting on college basketball tournaments.
Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, talked to the Globe as the General Assembly prepares to reconvene in January.
Here are eight things we learned:
Eliminating the EOHHS secretary
One the most important jobs that Governor Daniel J. McKee is trying to fill in his administration is secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, but he might not need to hire anyone if Ruggerio gets his way. The Senate president said he plans to introduce legislation to get rid of the job and make all agency directors within the office into Cabinet positions for the governor.
That would be a dramatic shift for one the most sprawling agencies in state government because it now oversees the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Children, Youth, and Families, and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals along with the Office of Healthy Aging and the Office of Veterans Services. It also oversees Medicaid.
“I just think that position is kind of unmanageable for one person,” Ruggerio said. “If something goes wrong in one of those agencies, that individual gets the blame. If something goes wrong in another agency, he or she gets the blame. I just think it’s unfair.”
Taking over the Providence takeover
Ruggerio floated an outside-the-box idea for the state takeover of Providence schools: He wants to work with the Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s largest philanthropic organization, to see if it will “supplement what’s going on in the city of Providence.”
He didn’t have the idea completely fleshed out, but he acknowledged his concern about the dysfunctional relationship the state and the district appear to have with the teachers’ union and the community. He said the foundation has always been successful at bringing groups together — particularly around contentious issues — to solve problems.
“They have money, they can appropriate money for certain things,” Ruggerio said. “The foundation does a great job with fund-raising. I think they could be a great adviser. I think you have some people on that board who would be great mentors.”
For what it’s worth, outgoing foundation president Neil Steinberg said he hasn’t had any discussion with state leaders about taking on a more active role with Providence schools.
More poor grades for the housing secretary
Ruggerio said he, too, has been unimpressed with the performance of Rhode Island Housing Secretary Josh Saal.
Last week, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said he would give Saal an “I for incomplete.” And when asked what letter grade he’d give Saal, Ruggerio said, “I’d give him a certificate of attendance.”
“We pump a whole lot of money into housing,” Ruggerio said. “I’ve been around here for awhile. Housing used to be screaming ‘We don’t have the money to do anything.’ Now they have the money. I want to see what they do with it.”
Last week, McKee’s administration ordered an encampment of homeless Rhode Islanders to leave the State House grounds after prevailing in a court case.
“If I was running housing, I would have had 10 people over here at the State House last week soliciting those people to go somewhere. I just didn’t see it,” Ruggerio said. He called for state officials to find places for more affordable housing, saying, “I’ll quote Bill Belichick: ‘Do your job.’ "
Against same-day voter registration
Ruggerio said he is against a proposal, backed by incoming Secretary of State Gregg Amore, that would let Rhode Islanders register to vote on Election Day in all elections.
“Same-day voter registration?” he said. “You know what I’ll do? I’ll get like 10 buses — I’ll bus people in from all over the place, come into my district, register to vote that day, go vote for me, and leave.”
Ruggerio argued that people should have to be in the state for a certain period of time before registering to vote.
“I mean, we’ve got the lady that ran for governor — that was ridiculous,” he said, referring to Republican Ashley Kalus, who ran for governor in the November election after registering to vote in Rhode Island in January. “You have to have some kind of stake in the community. I mean, come on.”
Adjusting the education funding formula
Pearson has been arguing for the state to tweak the multibillion-dollar state education funding formula for cities and towns for several years, and he thinks 2023 might finally be the time to get it done.
Pearson said he’s particularly interested in providing more funding for multilingual learners, the fastest-growing group of students in the state. He said thousands of students aren’t correctly identified as English learners based on the current formula, which often prevents districts from investing in the services those students need.
It won’t be cheap. Pearson projects that adjusting the formula for multi-language learners could cost $38 million a year, but he said that a lot of that money is already going to school districts in annual one-time pots of money. A change would make the funding more consistent year to year.
“We have a lot of opportunity to update the formula to match the needs of students today, to match the data that we have on what things cost today,” Pearson said.
Betting on the Friars. Kind of.
Ruggerio was one of the leading advocates for legalizing sports betting in Rhode Island, and this year he wants to make it easier to place a wager on local teams. He said he wants to allow Rhode Islanders to bet on the local college teams (largely men’s college basketball) during certain post-season and early season tournaments.
What does that mean? You still wouldn’t be allowed to bet on last night’s Providence College/Marquette game, but you would be allowed to bet on the Friars (or any local college team) if they are playing in March.
Noncommittal on putting documents online
The legislature receives reams of written testimony each year from people arguing for or against bills, and while the House of Representatives posts all of those documents online, the Senate does not. And Ruggerio was noncommittal about posting those documents on the Assembly website in 2023. “I don’t know — first I’ve heard about it,” he said. “Obviously, it’s something we will think of.”
Analysis of 2022 elections
In the 2022 elections, candidates backed by the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative went 0 for 13 in Senate races and 2 for 14 in House races, although other progressive groups reported gains.
Ruggerio said the Coop’s victories in Democratic primaries two years ago were a “fluke.” While the Coop has a “great ground game,” other candidates were uncertain about campaigning door-to-door during the pandemic, he said.
“I think this election was more indicative of how the public feels,” Ruggerio said. “They had an opportunity for two years to see what the left was, and they came back to basically the middle of the road. That’s how people are. Change for the sake of change is not always a good thing.”
Ruggerio acknowledged he was strongly considering retiring from the Senate in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Two election victories later, he said that he wants to help reboot the economy before he departs.
So will he run again in 2024?
“If I was betting person, which I am, I would bet that I would be running again, yes,” Ruggerio said.
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